California Wrote off Write-Ins on the Ballot for the First Time in History

Monday, November 12, 2012

The election last week marked the first time in California history that write-in votes were not permitted on the state ballot. Sort of.

A person could run as a write-in candidate, but was required to have notified the Secretary of State in advance declaring themselves running for office in order to be eligible.

The change was introduced as an accompaniment to the state’s new top-two, open primary rules, which took effect after voters approved Proposition 14 in June 2010. Voters can now cross party lines in primaries to choose their candidate, setting up possible election day confrontations between members of the same party, but, for the first time, can’t cast a vote for the first name that pops into their head on election day.

Write-in candidates have a hallowed tradition, dating back to at least 1954, when racist Strom Thurmond rallied South Carolina voters to his cause and won 63% of the vote for Senate. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski became the second senator to get elected via write-in after Republicans rejected her in their primary for Tea Party candidate Joe Miller and she ran for the office anyway.

But as a result of its new rules, California was one of only a handful of states without write-in space on the November ballots. Voters thus missed out on some golden opportunities to express the public will in a fashion still cherished by their fellow Americans.

Charles Darwin, the 19th-century naturalist who revolutionized the field of biology with his theory of evolution via natural selection, received nearly 4,000 write-in votes in Athens-Clarke County in the race for the 10th Congressional District seat held by five-year incumbent Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia). Darwin got about 20% of the votes in Athens-Clarke County, which gave Broun 16,980 votes, although Broun’s 209,917 district-wide total gave him a comfortable margin. There was no Democratic Party candidate on the ballot.

Jim Leebens-Mack, a University of Georgia plant biologist, started a “Darwin for Congress” write-in campaign after Broun attacked evolution and science generally in a September speech: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell,” Broun said. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” Broun further expressed his belief that the earth is only 9,000 years old, an opinion contradicted by both geology and archaeology, which have dated untold numbers of rocks and human-made objects as being millions of years old.

In an interview, Leebens-Mack pointed out that write-in votes were also cast for “Anyone but Broun” and various permutations of that sentiment, “Big Bird,” and “Bill Nye, The Science Guy.”

Meanwhile in Virginia, the hotly contested Senate race between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen—both former governors of the state—also featured the whimsical candidacy of Hank, a cat who garnered 6,000 votes and came in third. Hank, a beautiful Maine Coon cat whose out-of-state pedigree appears not to have been held against him, ran a campaign that was light on the issues but emphasized his personal story. As the offspring of a single mother who, along with his entire family, was rescued from certain death at a young age, Hank’s “story and dedication have inspired all who know him, and he realized that his ideas and unique life experiences could help his community, his state, and his country,” according to his website.

In the end, Kaine beat Allen by more than 186,000 votes, so Hank wasn’t even able to play the role of spoiler.

–Matt Bewig and Ken Broder



Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act and Voter-Nominated Offices (California Secretary of State) (pdf)

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen: Bring back our Write-In Votes! ( petition)

Assembly Bill 1413 (Legislative Analyst’s Office)

Write-in Voting, and Why it Matters (by Gloria Shur Bilchik, Occasional Planet)

Charles Darwin Gets 4,000 Write-In Votes in Athens against Paul Broun (by Jim Thompson, Athens Banner-Herald)

Paul Broun Discounts Darwin Write-In Campaign (by Jim Thompson, Athens Banner-Herald)

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA): Evolution, Big Bang “Lies Straight From The Pit Of Hell” (by Benjy Sarlin, Talking Points Memo)

Cat Appears to Come in Third in Virginia’s U.S. Senate Race (by Scott Bomboy, Constitution Daily)

Hank for U. S. Senate

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